Life and Other Four Letter Words: D A R K
The Internet is, and I’m not exaggerating, the best thing ‘we’ have ever done. It makes the pyramids look like the piles of old rocks they are and the moon-landing look like a Muppet Show sketch. If I meet Sir Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the Internet, I would walk right up to him with my index finger stretched out in front of me and press his nose like a little flesh button and say, “LIKE”. I will say, “LIKE, Sir Tim. LIKE!”
I spend a couple of minutes every day staring into space and thinking about the following incredible sequence of events: My fingers slide across the surface a piece of silver coloured alloy and that controls a arrow which moves through a screen. With that arrow I then choose a word or a picture ‘click’ it and data travels through cables, under oceans, over vast distances and finally though the air and lands in my lap in the form of information, utilities and entertainment. Years and decades of enlightening text, eye-opening images, free music, and very important videos of fat people falling off horses.
I can tell you right now I do not deserve that much amazingness. This technology – let’s call it what it is SORCERY - should not be for me. Something of this power and wonder should only be for the smartest, most responsible, most civic minded and noble among us. Instead it’s wasted on me and billions other idiots like me! I am an idiot and I am allowed the Internet and without it I would be downgraded from idiot to fungus.
Instead of thinking of a metaphor I just asked the Internet what the Internet is like and it said:
The Internet is like a series of Tubes
The Internet is like the wild west
The Internet is like the Universe
Strictly speaking I didn’t ask the Internet what its like – I asked a search engine and it skimmed the Internet and found me some options. Or, more specifically, it skimmed the indexed Internet and found me some options… or more spookily it skimmed the known Internet and found me some options.
Where it didn’t search, where it couldn’t search was the deep web (cue Scooby Doo music).
For most of us the ‘deep web’ is page 2 of a Google search (this may freak you out but that row of numbers at the bottom of a Google search are OTHER PAGES of search results.) The deep web is actually the Internet that can’t be accessed through conventional means. Pages that aren’t indexed by standard search engines or, way more juicy, pages that are hidden from the vanilla flavored Internet we tool about on.
This alternate Internet is up to 5000 times bigger than the Internet we know about at 7.5 Petabytes. But I’m not letting this descend into statistic bukake and I’m not going to talk about how the deep web works structurally (that is for someone who finished high school to write) I’m going to talk about a corner of the deep web called the Dark Web (cue James Bond music).
Most famously the dark web is a space for illicit marketplaces where anyone can buy anything. And I mean anything. Including but not limited to: drugs, guns, murder, kidnap, hackers for hire, bombs and bomb making equipment, counterfeit currency, false passports, social security numbers, green cards, stolen credit card numbers, unregulated Biotic materials, human organs and of course child abuse films and images – kiddie porn.
It’s like digital apocalypse down there – lawless desperados wearing headgear adorned with bird skulls all gathered round forums and poorly designed websites like they’re small tyre-fires. Trading children, weapons, homocide, new identities, hints’n’tips on mass destruction and other tomfoolery for jewelry made from human molars… except the molars are bitcoins and they’re probably wearing chinos not bird skulls. Evil is always way more banal than we think.
Before you rush off and type SILK ROAD DRUG MARKET into Yahoo and try to buy some Chloroform and a Glock 9 let me tell you you’re wasting your time. Not just because you still go to Yahoo (WTF?) but because the Dark Web can’t be accessed by you and your punk-ass white-bread, store bought, public IP Address not without an encryption service like TOR.
TOR (The Onion Router) is freely available software that gives the user online anonymity. It directs traffic, including your IP address, through a network of more than 5000 relays encrypting it every time until it’s impossible to establish where the original data was sent from or website is hosted. It effectively makes you invisible.
If you suddenly had the power of invisibility how long would it be before Justin Beiber had a dick tattooed on his forehead and you helped yourself to a little tax refund from the government gold vaults? Faster than Rhianna can say – “I had the weirdest dream that someone came into my room and was touching my boobs.” And that’s you, and you’re good. A bad person might do something less constructive with their powers.
TOR, like anonymity, is a tool that lets good people do good things and bad people do bad things.
But TOR isn’t designed maintained and loved to be used by pornographers and Jihadists; it’s run by some righteous crypto activists as a superpower for dissidents, whistle blowers, and (sadly) journalists. Encryption services like TOR are maybe our last shields for the cornerstones of our democracies: freedom of speech, freedom of the press and our own personal privacy.
The most famous TOR user (and fan) by a long stretch is hero, whistle blower and the star of the ‘reality TV’ version of ‘Revenge Of the Nerds’ Edward Snowden. TOR is how Snowden leaked PRISM and other terrifying PowerPoint documents outlining the NSA’s mass surveillance programs and revealing to the world:
As we all suspected PowerPoint is inherently evil.
We are governed by people who see and treat us as adversaries. They don’t respect us, they don’t like us and they sure as shit don’t trust us.
The NSA will tell you they’re hunting terrorists. But their activities have never once stopped terrorist activity. They’re just old-school spying. They’re spying on you, me and our lives and they’ve looked at emails inside the UN, the EU and hacked world leaders’ accounts. So not just the ‘bad-guys’. They’ve tapped the phone of Angela Merkel who apparently, when listened into, sounds like a stern phone-sex-granny-dominatrix talking dirty about bank bailouts and porous borders but doesn’t talk about attacking America or American interests – so she’s not strictly terrorist. Besides, by now, the terrorists are probably using TOR.
The NSA calls TOR the gold standard of Internet anonymity. As one of their ‘secret’ documents states. TOR is “the king of high-secure, low-latency Internet anonymity” with "no contenders for the throne in waiting". And they fucking hate it that it works so well. And we should hate that it needs to work so well. We should hate that its user numbers are swelling ever since our governments started using 1984 as an instruction manual.
“If you’re not doing anything wrong - why is privacy important?”
Because fuck you that’s why. It’s important because mind your own fucking business that’s why.
We are more honest with search engines than we are with our friends, families and possibly even ourselves. The data we give away every time we type a request into is soft-belly data. It’s the data of our fears, our dreams, our fantasies, our cheats, our ugly pride, our failings and our, all too human, shame. You don’t need to be a bomb-making pedophile to have the screws put on your thumbs by a government agency. Simple embarrassment is a powerful enough lever to make any of us compliant.
Our intimacy with search engines can also lay a narrative that might not be accurate and, out of context, could land anyone of us in the shit. Doing ‘research’ for this piece the last 24 hours would cast me in the wrong light for sure. This recent search history isn’t me – for a start there are no searches for FAT PERSON FALLING OFF HORSE - there is, however, evidence of a guy at my IP address digging around on ‘anti government’ sites and boning up on how to avoid detection.
(Cue Jason Bourne music) “We notice you are interesting in evading detection online. Why, sir? What have you got to hide?”
What have I got to hide? Fuck you that’s what.
This is what comes next – our desire for privacy is couched as a desire to hide something. A claim to our fundamental rights is suddenly colored as an admission of harboring something horrific. By wanting our lives our own we are forced to use the same cloak as the bird skull wearing Internet creeps with pockets full of molars that give privacy a bad name. Hiding turn citizens into criminals and criminals into romantically tinged outlaws -and neither is true.
A secret obsessed government becomes a secret government and in turn we become a secret society… then a whispering society… and finally a silent one. That’s why privacy is important. Because otherwise we all just shut up and all the incredibly beautiful, smart beyond reproach, hilarious, ingenious people filled with capabilities so broad and exquisite it makes me want not to kill a whole lot of you… disappear and the whole Internet becomes dark not just a corner of it.
The government’s desire to know everything about everyone has put our security at risk, our creativity at risk, our children at risk and our honesty at risk. Before we pry into someone’s life and drag them over the coals we need to prove probable cause. That’s a law (sort of) because without that the door is too open. The temptation is too great. To know what is happening is to know what will happen and the power to create the future is too hard to resist.
But I guess every witch needs a crystal ball.